A Travellerspoint blog

Bogota

Our first taste of Colombia

semi-overcast 14 °C
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Our boat dropped us at the tri-border zone where Peru borders Columbia and Brazil. The border office was closed so we were unable to get our Peruvian exit stamps, a little investigation indicated that the immigration officer was off work sick and of course there was no replacement.

It seemed the only thing to do was to come back to the immigration office first thing the following morning and hope that it would be open. The only saving grace was the lack of border control within the tri-border area meant we were able to hire a local to take us across the river to Leticia in Columbia to spend the night there, rather than staying in Santa Rosa which consists of little more than a few huts beside the river.

The next morning we headed back to Santa Rosa, the immigration officer was still sick but luckily his wife was filling in and she stamped us out of Peru. With the formalities complete it was cinch to get admitted into Colombia and book our flights to Bogota.

The Christchurch earthquake hit soon after we arrived in Bogota. Obviously that was a bit of a shock and the next 24 hours were a bit tense while we ascertained that Jess's friends and family were safe, which thankfully they all were!

Bogota was our first real experience of Colombia as Leticia was basically the jungle equivalent of the classic, dusty, one horse, border town. The city was pretty cool, with a nice old central area and a pretty sophisticated vibe. It was quite different from the indigenous cultures we had found in Bolivia and Peru and as a result pretty refreshing. Surprisingly, at least to Jess and I, it was also pretty cold and we missed the warm clothes that we had posted home in Lima.

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We went into a couple of nice churches, a good free art museum showcasing Botero, a Spanish painter with a fetish for overweight people, and the Museum of Gold, which had a huge number of South America artifacts all made of gold.

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Still there are not really any “must see” tourist attractions and so ignoring the bars you can probably see most of the other sites of interest in 1 – 2 days. We did a day trip out of Bogota to visit a cathedral that had been built inside an old salt mine. Nice enough, and definitely unique, but it was a little touristy and contrived for our taste and probably not worth the entry fee.

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Next stop is when the endless summer element of our trip really begins as we head to the Caribbean coast and the beaches!

Posted by mwalmsle 07:19 Archived in Colombia Comments (1)

Iquitos

Heading to Columbia

sunny 34 °C
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Because of the potential for less than perfect weather we decided to postpone visiting Huaraz until our next South American junket and headed straight for the Columbian border via the Rio Amazonas. As we had already done a wetlands tour in Brazil we were not planning to explore the jungle further. However, by taking the indirect route we would avoid the cost of an international flight and at the same time get to see something a bit different. The first stop was Lima where we would be able to catch a flight to Iquitos.

Lima doesn't have a great reputation as a tourist destination and Jess and I arrived expecting it to be a little dirty and unpleasant. While that might hold true for parts of Lima, we stayed in an upmarket area known as Miraflores and found that to be very cosmopolitan and actually a pretty nice place to spend a couple of days doing some admin (posting our warm clothes home) and organising our flights to Iquitos.

Iquitos is deep in the Amazon and accessible only by air or riverboat which makes it somewhat unique for a city of 400,000 people. Other than the heat and humidity the first thing that you notice is that there are motorised rickshaws (moto-taxis) everywhere and the the air is filled with the melodious sounds of two-stroke engines. These things cost about $1 to go anywhere in the central city and made getting around something of a novelty. The second thing that you notice is that you have been surrounded by 4 – 5 purported jungle guides, all who are trying to sell you their services as a guide, their brothers services and any jewellery or tacky souvenirs that they happen to have to hand.

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Jess and I had no expectations when we arrived and due to a combination of warm weather, decent food and a nice vibe, ended up really liking the place despite the hawkers. We spent two nights there and so we pretty much had one free day. In the morning we headed to the local markets in Belen, a shanty town down near the river where the streets become completely submerged in the rainy season (apparently the poor South America cousin of Venice) and you have to travel between houses by canoe. As the rainy season had yet to arrive the town itself was not yet underwater, however we did hire a local to take us up and down the nearby river in his canoe to get a better view of some of the houses, which are either high up on stilts or built on balsa wood platforms which float on the surface of the river.

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The market was the highlight of the town, by far and away the best local market we have been to on our trip, it had all sorts of strange produce on offer, from the more pedestrian cat fish to strange grubs, turtle meat, alligators and live monkeys.

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That afternoon we jumped on another local ferry and headed across the river to visit a Butterfly farm and animal sanctuary. The butterflies were impressive but the best part were the rescued animals which included, among others, plenty of monkeys, an ocelot and a jaguar.

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The next day we jumped aboard our speedboat which would take us down the river to the Columbia border. The trip wasn't quite what I had expected, I guess when I think of the Amazon I imagine a sluggish tepid river snaking through towering jungle, strange vines dropping down into the water and hundreds of fascinating and deadly animals assaulting you on all sides as you frantically try to fend them off with your oar.

The reality, at least on the main body of river is very different. Being the biggest river in the world the river itself is very wide, the river banks and jungle are well removed from any passenger vessels on the river and even when you do get closer to the side you find that it is much more developed than you would have thought, with villages and dwellings at fairly regular intervals. If it does exist, the virgin jungle of my imagination can probably only be found on foot or by heading into one of the National Parques and then up one of the smaller tributaries.

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While the boat trip was a success in that it got us to the desired destination of the Columbian border, I was a little disappointed that it didn't give as a better taste of the Amazon. Still, that's what you get when you take a public mode of transport, rather than forking out the money for a private tour or cruise.

The next entry will detail another exciting border crossing and Bogota, the capital of Columbia.

Posted by mwalmsle 15:58 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Cuzco, Sacred Valley & Machu Picchu

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We arrived in Peru with a little fuss as Bolivian protesters had blockaded the border to vehicles. Our bus to Cuzco was stranded on the Peruvian side of the border and we had to catch taxis and then walk for 3 – 4 kms past the protesters to get to the border crossing. It all seemed peaceful and Jess and I, along with hundreds of other travellers, crossed into Peru without problems.

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Welcome to Peru

When we arrived we discovered that the rainy season we had been told would exist in Bolivia (and didn't) was firmly ensconced in Cuzco. Cuzco is South America's oldest continuously inhabited city and was the centre of of the Incan civilisation. Following, it's capture by the Spanish it in 1533 it slowly lessened in importance and became something of a colonial backwater until Machu Picchu was rediscovered in 1911. Now with the massive tourist influx it's a pretty happening place and has ten hawkers on every corner (a negative), a great central plaza, lots of beautiful churches, great food and plenty of night life. We spent four days there, one kept inside by the rain, one kept inside with a hangover and two exploring the city and surrounding ruins.

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Plaza de Armas in Cuzco

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Cose up of the Cusco Cathedral and rare blue sky

Although the tourist maps show the city has historic sites, museums and Inca ruins galore we didn't think much of any of them other than Sacsaywaman, a huge ruined Incan complex up in the hills above Cuzco. What you can see today is only about 20% of the original structure as the Spanish conquistadors tore down much of the fortress following the capture of Cusco, using the stones to build large buildings such as the cathedral in the city centre. The remains however, still impress, with the quality and size (some of the rocks are huge) of the remaining walls being the main draw card.

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Mike, Jess and Saqsaywaman in Cuzco

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A massive wall stone at Saskaywaman

There seemed to be a significant amount of maintenance going on while we were there, to such an extent that it made me question what level of restoration had taken place, or was taking place, and therefore what was authentic and what was being rebuilt for the purposes of tourism.

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These ruins and the workmen made me suspicious about what was new and what was old

There are a variety of ways to travel from Cuzco to Machu Picchu. The Inca Trail, which is undoubtedly the most famous route, is closed for maintenance in February each year so that was out of the question and the other alternative treks didn't appeal given the level of rain fall.

A direct train is another option however there are a number of other Incan sites in what is known as the Sacred Valley which the train bypasses. Organised tours allow you to visit all the ruins in a day but Jess and I decided that we would steer clear of tour groups, organise our own transport and spend a night at each location exploring the nearby Incan Ruins and then catch the train from the last village to Machu Picchu.

Over a couple of days we saw a ruined hilltop Incan citadel called Pisac perched up on almost sheer cliffs above a beautiful valley, a series of man made salt pans used to extract salt from a mineral spring since Incan times, a series of concentric circular agriculture terracing, believed to be an Incan research “facility” for testing crops and another old Incan fortress and temple near the village of Ollantaytambo. Plus, we found an amazing restaurant in Olantaytambo which we ate at three times because the food was so good.

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Mike and a baby condor at an animal sanctuary

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The Pisac sun temple soaked through

There are photos of all the sites in the gallery, but the most impressive despite visiting it in the pouring rain was Pisac. If you do visit Cuzco I would definitely make the effort to head out to this little town, Jess and I had no expectations and were blown away by the size of the site, its position on the cliffs and the amazing agricultural terracing below it. Plus, as an added bonus, the village of Pisac has an excellent market selling all the llama merchandise you could possibly need.

After exploring the Sacred Valley at our leisure we jumped on a train from Ollaytaytambo to Agua Callientes, the super touristy little town that sits directly below Machu Picchu. As an aside, if there is something they do well in Cusco and Machu Picchu, it is clipping the ticket – catching the train to Machu Picchu, the entrance fee, the accommodation and the food all cost a fortune relative to the costs elsewhere in Peru. However, I have to say that it is worth it when you get there.

The location of Machu Picchu is amazing, both for it's natural beauty and its inaccessibility. Perched as it is high above the narrow valley floor, on a saddle between two peaks and with a tumultuous river running at the bottom, it's no wonder that it wasn't rediscovered until 1911.

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Jess in a postcard

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The Sacred Square, Intihuatana and Wayna Picchu

The first 400 people in the gate each morning are allowed to climb up above Machu Picchu to Wayna Picchu, a hill overlooking the main site which is topped with more ruins and gives great views. To ensure we were one of the first 400, we got up at 4am and walked to Machu Picchu rather than catching one of the buses which didn't start leaving until 5:30am. Although it subsequently turned out that catching the bus would have still got us in the first 400 and saved us some hard slog.

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Jess and the Sun Temple

Although there are plenty of guided tours available, we decided to go without a guide and with that in mind had bought a book on Machu Picchu in Cusco. When we opened the guide it turned out to be complete rubbish, with about 75% of it focused on the flowers of Machu Picchu, not really a passion of ours, however, so as not to be wasteful we took a number of photos of the flowers as well as the ruins. Still, self-guided but with a better book is definitely the way to explore the ruins – the tour groups we saw were all on a specific schedule and the number of people in each one would have made it impossible to go at your own pace or take decent photos.

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Some of the wonderful flowers explained by our guidebook

We got lucky with the weather with blue sky, sunshine and a few white clouds. We were in the gates at 6:30am, booked in to climb Wayna Picchu at 10am and were able to spend the early part of the morning exploring the main site with very few other people. The early arrival and the 10am Wayna Picchu climb was definitely the way to go, as by the time the trains from Cusco arrived and the main site filled with noisy tour groups, Jess and I had already finished looking around the main site and had lined up to climb Wayna Picchu. The path up was incredibly steep, via a narrow set of stairs set into the rock and although tiring, the view at the top was definitely worth the effort.

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Michael on top of Wayna Picchu, great view - note the snaking road up to Machu Picchu

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Jess exhausted giving Wayna Picchu the fingers after making it to the top

I've put a couple more of photos of Machu Picchu below with captions for you to look through and there are more in the gallery. Next we head back to Cuzco for a night and then we head to Lima, from there we are not quite sure of our next destination. We want to go trekking in Huaraz in northern Peru but the rainy season might mean that walking at this time of year is not possible / pleasant. If Huaraz is a no go, we will probably try to cross into Columbia by flying to Iquitos in Peru and then catching a boat down the Amazon to Leticia in southern Columbia. What a cliffhanger...

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Little clouds covering parts of the Ruins

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Viscacha on a rock in the ruins

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Residential area stretching towards Wayna Picchu

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Another Flower of Machu Picchu

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Baby Llamas - Machu Picchus lawnmowers

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Jess standing on the agricultural terracing, Wayna Picchu behind

Posted by mwalmsle 05:59 Archived in Peru Comments (1)

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